Attica’s 40-year Legacy: Revisiting the Prison Riot’s Deadly Lessons

by September 16, 2011 0 comments

BUFFALO, N.Y. Mixing a historic panel of eyewitnesses and survivors with past and present multi-media attractions, the University at Buffalo will mark the 40th anniversary of the most deadly prison riot in the nation’s history with a three-day conference, Sept. 11-13 at UB and other Buffalo college campuses, a short drive away from the prison. “I hope we can begin the process of healing the wounds that this event inflicted,” says UB law professor Teresa A. Miller, lead conference organizer who has been behind prison walls about 35 times in the last two years filming a documentary and acting as a state-appointed advisor to men serving life sentences for second-degree murder at Attica State Prison. See a video interview with Miller at The conference is called “Forty Years After the Attica Uprising: Looking Back, Moving Forward.” For more information or to interview Miller or others involved in the event, contact Charles Anzalone in UB’s Office of University Communications at (716) 645-4600. The highlight is a panel discussion among people whose lives Miller says have been “indelibly marked” by their roles in the 1971 uprising. The Attica Uprising ended Sept. 13, 1971, with the deaths of over 40 inmates, corrections officers and a civilian when 500 state troopers stormed Attica after inmates took over the prison and held hostages. “Some of the presenters include a corrections officer who was taken hostage and later survived four bullet shots to the abdomen,” Miller says. “Also an inmate eyewitness who was 19 years old when he was sent to Attica for a parole violation as a juvenile. A woman whose father was killed by inmates in the process of taking over Times Square, the central area in the prison, during the first minutes of the uprising. A corporate lawyer who answered an ad to prosecute crimes after the uprising and who later wrote ‘The Turkey Shoot,’ a book about the criminal investigation of the uprising and the state’s cover-up. “These presenters will all sit together at one table and discuss their firsthand experience during the uprising as well as the impact on them personally, and its continuing impact today. “To my knowledge, this is unprecedented. What makes this 40th anniversary unique is some of these stakeholders are in their 80s. They may not be around for the 50th anniversary.” The three-day conference includes numerous visual attractions showing the drama that has become a part of American history, from Al Pacino’s infamous “Attica, Attica” chant in “Dog Day Afternoon” to iconic images of the Attica prison yard occupied by hundreds of inmates. The conference begins 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, with a screening of “Ghosts of Attica” at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College. A graphic collage of photos taken at the uprising will be displayed. On Tuesday, Sept. 13 at UB’s North Campus Student Union Theater and 106 O’Brian Hall, New York State Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer will give the keynote address at 3:30 p.m. Also, at 9 a.m. during Monday’s panel presentation, the large screen in Allen Hall will show original news footage of the uprising and testimony before the McKay Commission that investigated the uprising. During a Monday afternoon panel from 2:30 to 4 pm, Miller’s 20-minute film, “Four Myths About Attica” will be shown. Miller brings years of first-hand experience with Attica and its prisoners to the conference. Her observations of a prison system that has grown too large and been toxic to everyone from the prisoners and their families to the guards and civilian workers and their families has shaped the conference. “The biggest lesson to learn is that what happens in society affects prisons and what happens in prisons affects society,” says Miller. “The public needs to be more concerned about what goes on behind prison walls. The two worlds can never be cordoned off. And we ignore that relationship at our peril.” Also important in Miller’s research were the relationships and connections Miller has made with inmates and corrections officers and their families. “Corrections officers are significantly affected by the conditions that exist in prison,” she says. “As one officer told me, ‘My day consists of negative interactions, day after day.’ And after 25 years, that really affects who a person is.” The relationships she has formed with the men serving life sentences has left her with equally strong convictions. “There is a core of people, lifers, men serving life sentences anywhere from 20 years to life to 145 years to life, they have an investment in making Attica as functional a place as possible,” Miller says. “Some of the hardest work being done to make Attica a safe place for everyone is being done by the lifers group. “As one of the men told me, he would trust someone incarcerated for life for second-degree murder before trusting someone convicted for burglary because the person in for burglary may very well kill you in the process of committing their crime, but many people incarcerated for second-degree murder reach a point in which they snapped. “Many of these people serving time for second-degree murder reached that breaking point, and that’s the point where any one of us, if pushed hard enough, might reach.” A full schedule of the events and presenters is available at UB’s Law School web page at In addition to the UB Law School, conference sponsors are UB’s Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York State, the Criminal Justice Department of Buffalo State College and the Erie County Reentry Task Force as well as UB’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Civic Engagement and Public Policy Strategic Strength and the UB Humanities Institute.

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